Sparta sails in downtown GR’s wake
Cellar Brewing Co., other companies move downtown to improve village’s appeal.
Downtown Sparta is changing.
As a village of little more than 4,000 people approximately 20 minutes north of Grand Rapids, Sparta is the latest downtown to see added investment — to the tune of $30 million. In the past year, the Business Journal has featured projects in downtown Hudsonville and Cedar Springs.
A portion of the increase for activity in small town centers is because of the excitement generated by Grand Rapids, said Julius Suchy, Sparta village manager.
“There is something special going on in West Michigan as it relates to Grand Rapids,” Suchy said. “Grand Rapids is looked at throughout the state and region as in an envious position, and communities like Sparta benefit from that.”
Suchy said the increase in investment in downtowns could be because of a shift in demographic thinking among the younger generations moving into communities for the first time. The increase in younger populations could be the impetus for the catalytic project of Cellar Brewing Co. moving downtown.
“We want to create a Sparta people might want to come to for a weekend afternoon,” Suchy said. “Maybe grab a bite, a beer, walk along the creek and hang out.”
Currently situated next to a gas station on the outskirts of the village in a windowless building, Cellar Brewing Co. is in the midst of moving into a 7,000-square-foot vacant building across from the village offices as part of a $1.9 million project.
Suchy said collaboration between the village and the Sparta Downtown Development Authority made the move possible. The DDA awarded the brewery a $110,000 façade grant to help improve the storefront and street scape, said Elizabeth Morse, DDA and Chamber of Commerce director.
Two more façade grants were awarded last week, Morse said.
“We have several programs for businesses to expand, not through physical footprint or jobs, but (they) want to clean up their exterior,” Morse said. “There are impactful reinvestments we can partner on to help get businesses involved.”
The village also recently purchased an old, white house at 228 E. Division in Sparta with a “nonconforming use” for the downtown commerce area, Suchy said. The plan is for it to be torn down in the next several months to create a vacant lot which the community can partner with a developer on for a commercial building, he said.
Taking buildings not used to their fullest potential is an issue many small community downtowns must deal with, Morse said. She said properties often are stagnant with old uses or families who don’t sell or transfer ownership, making it difficult to redevelop with effective uses in the community.
“In our situation, and many others, is what they refer to the white elephant building, properties that tend to be underutilized or derelict without any motivation to sell or transfer,” she said. “There might not be space available, underutilized properties, but not that much vacancy. For us it’s creating space out of previously unusable space or making those spaces (available) to a higher and better use.”
There’s more activity in Sparta beyond a new brewery and a vacant building being torn down.
ChoiceOne Bank also is in the midst of a renovation on its downtown Sparta building, while Tesa Tape and General Formulations are in the middle of multimillion-dollar expansions.
A 122-acre parcel recently was sold by the village to Natural Choice Foods, which will move from Comstock Park and build a headquarters in Sparta next year. Prior to the sale to Natural Choice Foods, Suchy said the property could have ended up as a dense apartment complex.
“It could have changed the makeup of Sparta,” he said.
The village recently sold 10 acres to Cascade Die Casting.
Together, the business investments likely will total more than $30 million, Morse said, and create more than 200 jobs.
“It’s great when we can partner and facilitate a grant, but someone is still putting up money on these projects,” Suchy said. “There are lots of expansions going on in Sparta, but it starts with a downtown focus and moves outward. The investment is crazy for a community our size.”
To help house the new workers for the business investment, Sparta tore down an old elementary school a few years ago and partnered with Sable Homes to build 20 homes. Now, Sable is approved to build an additional 45 homes on the site.
“In the grand scheme of things, we have a lot of projects going on, and we have to think about housing,” Suchy said. “We’re creating jobs, moving in families, kids in school and the count goes up, funding goes up. It’s all this big cycle, and we’re excited about creating a destination for some people in northern Kent County.”
The village also has raised $2.1 million to build an 80-acre recreation park to host youth sports and activities.
Morse said the recreation park is 20 years of discussion coming to fruition as the support has swelled.
She also said it’s important the community members see the commitment of the public sector to invest in making Sparta a better place to live.
“If we don’t think it’s good enough, how can we expect someone else to come in and save the day?” she said. “The efforts over the last several decades are really coming to fruition with all these changes.
“We can wait for investment to happen, or we can try to facilitate as much as we can.”
Similar to the recreation park, discussion to revamp the parking lot between a commercial strip of buildings and the creek running through downtown took plenty of planning.
Suchy said the planning process was expected to be one to two meetings, but working through community discussions and opposition took six meetings. Now, with the community on the same page, the village worked with Big Rapids-based Manning Design and came away with a $1.2 million plan to work for businesses and residents. Suchy said part of the issue was long-time Sparta residents being OK with how the parking lot has worked for 70 years, so why not keep it the same?
“We wanted to make it flow better, we looked at pedestrian safety, adding greenery,” he said. “We don’t have a river running through town, but we have a creek, so we need to utilize it. Now, we’re looking at executing an action plan to make a difference long term.”
Suchy said Sparta has watched the development in other communities across West Michigan and felt it could be a better place for residents as well.
“The village council is looking at long-term investment. What do we want 20 years from now?” he said. “We’ve looked at Cedar Springs, Rockford, even Lowell, and they’re all on different levels. Rockford is a gorgeous community, and we’re not trying to be Rockford, we’re trying to be the best Sparta we can be.”